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Subject, Aspects of Interest, and Effect of John Keats's "On the Sonnet"

by Ngoc Nguyen

“On the Sonnet”
by John Keats

If by dull rhymes our English must be chained,
And, like Andromeda, the Sonnet sweet
Fettered, in spite of painéd loveliness;
Let us find out, if we must be constrained,
Sandals more interwoven and complete
To fit the naked foot of poesy;
Let us inspect the lyre, and weigh the stress
Of every chord, and see what may be gained
By ear industrious, and attention meet;
Misers of sound and syllable, no less
Than Midas of his coinage, let us be
Jealous of dead leaves in the bay-wreath crown;
So, if we may not let the Muse be free,
She will be bound with garlands of her own.

John Keats's sonnet is about reinventing the traditional sonnet: “Let us find,” poeticizes Keats, “if we must be constrained,/ Sandals more interwoven and complete/ To fit the naked foot of Poesy:/ Let us inspect the lyre, and weigh the stress/ Of every chord, and see what may be gained/ By ear industrious, and attention meet.” In fact, according to a source, “in a letter that contained this sonnet, Keats expressed impatience with the traditional Petrarchan and Shakespearean sonnet forms: 'I have been endeavoring to discover a better sonnet stanza than we have.'”

As a poet, Keats is ranked with Percy Bysshe Shelley and George Gordon, Lord Byron as one of the three great English Romantic poets. Therefore—along with Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Shelley, Lord Byron, and other great English poets—any student of poetry can learn much from Keats as a poet. Keats, despite his very brief existence due to a losing struggle with pulmonary tuberculosis (which was incurable and almost always fatal during his era in history)—led a very admirable and brave life. He was remarkably kind, generous, sympathetic, and sensitive to the very pulses and tremors of nature and of everything around him. He was exquisitely in tune with the subtle harmonies around him that most of us lesser beings take for granted and are by and large insensate to. A historian of English literature and verse can only imagine what Keats might have accomplished as a poet had he lived a much longer lifespan than his very brief twenty-five years. At any rate, Keats was so admirable and inspirational as a human being and as a poet that—despite the hand that was dealt him by his fate, so to speak—virtually anyone in his position should have liked to have lived as nobly and as courageously as he did in the same situation. Keats, the persona, was possibly as great a man and a human being as he was a great poet in modern history.

The effect of this sonnet on the reader and on the student of poetry is only a foretaste and a precursor of what was to come from its author, as Keats was eminently capable of writing more impressive sonnets in particular and greater poetry in general. In this sonnet, Keats proposes to compose and construct—to even “fabricate”—sonnets that reinvent or “re-imagine” and “re-envision” the traditional Petrarchan or Shakespearean sonnet forms. Granted, some traditionalists and purists of formal English verse might demur and posit that the sonnet in question might enjoy more success as a poem in the above-mentioned, long-established poetic forms. However, who are the poetry critics to argue with Keats—one of the greatest poets of literature and of the English canon (of verse)—who are least likely to compose as good or great a sonnet as the one discoursed upon in this treatise? For all the critics—and we—may know, Keats most probably scribbled this specimen of poetry on an unused napkin after one of his daily repasts as a merely-spontaneous afterthought. What Keats may have—and could easily have—done so naturally and effortlessly as a poet any one of us might only accomplish with great and Sisyphean effort and protracted labor. What Keats actually managed to achieve poetically in only six years—from his very first piece of verse at the age of nineteen to his untimely death at the young age of twenty-five—is quite remarkable indeed! As a result of his intuitive and poetic genius, Keats today stands as one of the great Romantic poets of England. Though he stood a mere five-feet tall in height, John Keats was easily a giant and Leviathan among English poets to this day.